Up in the northwest corner of Iraq lies one piece of history layered in even more history: a former Saddam Hussein era prison camp covered in street art by it’s Syrian refugee inhabitants. Every Friday, Syrian youth participate in the Castle Art Project, taking paintbrushes to the dreary walls of their temporary home and drawing murals of a brighter future mixed with memories of their tragic past.
The project was started in April 2014 by the Rise Foundation, a local non-profit, as a creative outlet for the youth of Akre Syrian Refugee Camp and a way to improve the oppressive atmosphere of the barred windows and cracked concrete walls. But it has grown into a community gathering activity for the refugees and a source of income for its young artists. As the project has helped develop the youths’ art skills, they have transitioned into painting canvasses as well. The Rise Foundation holds occasional galleries and art auctions in Iraqi Kurdistan to provide the artists with a small income and to help sustain the project’s supply of paint and brushes.
They are artists in every sense of the word. Not only is their work talented, but it embodies the greater motivation of telling their story. Coming from Damascus and the surrounding areas in Syria, they have seen a lot of violence and have struggled to escape across the border into Iraq. The Islamic State (IS) has destroyed their homes, their families and their sense of identity.
“Many of these girls have experienced violence, conflict and homelessness all before becoming teenagers, and the opportunity to reflect on these experiences in a positive and safe way, while developing their skills and talents, is very special,” said Maria Mulcahy, a volunteer with the Rise Foundation.
When the project first began, the youth were only painting pictures of war. Pages and pages of blood, bombs and tears scattered their notebooks. As the project has progressed, so have their paintings. Now, their favorite things to draw are eyes and flowers.
The Castle Art Project aims to create agents of positive change and social transformation through empowering the artists to express themselves and take a stand. The artwork they create validates their experiences and arguably helps them work through the developmental challenges they inevitably face as refugee children.
“Seeing such a group of people come together after all they have endured through art has taught me so much about resilience and community, which is what makes the project so addictive,” said Glenn Field, a local teacher and volunteer for the Rise Foundation.
Through the project and the collaborations on mural art, the youth have formed strong friendships, made leaps in their artistic ability, and have grown in their overall confidence. Whether it’s a mural of the world’s largest bunny or a somber tribute to the migrants who drown everyday attempting to get to Europe, they support each other and share in the experience.
Despite all the progress the youth and the project itself have made, it is in danger of ending.
“If it wasn’t for the grueling fundraising that we do, this project of hope would surely disintegrate, so we need all the help we can get,” said Field.
The project is currently facilitated all through volunteers, but if it secures funding, the organization hopes to see it continue and expand to other refugee camps in the area as well.
Taylor Smith is an Italian American freelance journalist currently living in Iraqi Kurdistan.